Ayman al-Zawahiri's video statement surfaced on extremist websites. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Members of al-Qaeda have infiltrated Syrian opposition groups, and likely executed recent bombings in the nation’s capital and largest city, the United States’ top intelligence official said Thursday.
The remarks by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper are the most definitive to date from a senior Obama administration official on al-Qaeda’s efforts to insert itself into the Syrian uprising.
Two bombings in Damascus in December, as well as deadly attacks on security and intelligence buildings in Aleppo last week, “had all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda-like attack,” Clapper said, adding that the network’s affiliate in Iraq “is extending its reach into Syria.”
But Clapper suggested that al-Qaeda has so far not sought to call attention to its presence, and that its operatives may have slipped into groups of fighters opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Al-Qaeda extremists “have infiltrated” opposition groups that “in many cases may not be aware they are there,” Clapper said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee.
U.S. intelligence agencies have not detected an influx of fighters from neighboring countries into Syria, where opposition forces are fragmented and often feuding, with little indication that a leader will soon emerge, officials said.
So far there has been no “clarion call to outsiders coming in,” said Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “We haven’t seen much of that up to this time, so basically the team that’s on the ground is playing with what it has.”
Burgess’s comments came just days after al-Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri released a video message urging fighters in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to mobilize against Assad.
Al-Qaeda has largely been relegated to the sidelines in a series of uprisings across the Arab world over the past year, and its affiliate in Iraq has struggled to regroup after being hunted to near extinction by Shiite militias aligned with the American military “surge.”
U.S. officials for several weeks have been saying that the bombings in Syria bore certain characteristics of previous al-Qaeda operations, but that no definitive evidence had surfaced to establish that link.
Clapper seemed to go a step farther, describing al-Qaeda’s presence among militant groups as “another disturbing phenomenon that we’ve seen.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, has called on Muslims around the world to support rebels in Syria who are seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.
The statement is the most explicit attempt yet by the terrorist group to intervene in the ongoing Syrian conflict.
In the eight-minute video titled Onwards, Lions of Syria, posted on extremist websites on Saturday, Zawahiri calls on Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the uprising against Assad’s “pernicious, cancerous regime”, and warned Syrian rebels not to rely on the west for help.
“Wounded Syria still bleeds day after day while the butcher, son of the butcher Bashar bin Hafiz [Hafez al-Assad], is not deterred to stop,” Zawahiri said. “But the resistance of our people in Syria despite all the pain, sacrifice and bloodshed escalates and grows.”
Al-Qaida, seriously weakened by the loss of its leader Osama bin Laden last year, has played no significant role in the ongoing unrest associated with the Arab spring. However, the group has made persistent attempts to indirectly influence those opposing autocratic regimes across the Middle East, and to intervene directly. Late last year senior militants linked to the group travelled from Afghanistan to Libya in an effort to boost recruitment in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
The Assad regime has repeatedly said Islamic militants are behind the violence in Syria, a claim rejected by opposition groups who say it is designed to discredit them in the eyes of the international community.
At the weekend, US newspapers cited American officials blaming al-Qaida in Iraq, a largely autonomous affiliate of the main group, for two recent bombings in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and a suicide attack in Aleppo on Friday that killed at least 28 people.
Zawahiri said: “If we want freedom, we must be liberated from this regime. If we want justice, we must retaliate against this regime. Continue your revolt and anger, don’t accept anything else apart from independent, respectful governments.”
In July, Zawahiri urged Syrian protesters to direct their movement also against Washington and Israel, denouncing the US as insincere in showing solidarity with them.
This month another video featuring Zawahiri appeared on Islamist forums, announcing that the Somali militant group al-Shabaab was joining its ranks, in an apparent attempt to boost morale and sharpen the threat to western targets.
Al-Qaida leader Zawahri praises Free Syrian Army (Opposition Militants)
Twin Bombing in Damascus, Syria on 23 December 2011
At least 40 people were killed and more than 100 injured in two suicide car bombings in Syria’s capital, Damascus, officials say. State TV said suspected al-Qaeda militants had targeted a General Security Directorate base and another security agency in the Kafr Sousa area.